A way out
“Do you think it still floats?” Kelden asked. A longboat, roughly twenty feet long and eight feet wide sat off to the side of the chamber, at the edge of the light cast by Nedekar’s cube. The two approached the vessel, Nedekar holding his cube up to illuminate as much of the room as possible with each step.
“Looks intact,” Nedekar said breathlessly. “This was here? The whole time?”
Nedekar turned to Kelden and shook his head. “And you doubt Lisei’s wisdom?”
Kelden shrugged. “Setting an elaborate trap doesn’t require a beneficial kind of wisdom,” he replied. “When this foolishness is over, and I am back with my queen on our way to reclaim her throne, then I will be satisfied. Until then, Lisei’s true motives are questionable at best.”
Nedekar waved a thin hand in the air. “You’ll battle sea-crocs with your bare hands, but you stubbornly hold onto your doubts.”
“Doubts keep me cautious, and that keeps me alive,” Kelden said. “Besides, I have always worshipped the Old Gods.”
Nedekar nodded and continued moving closer to the boat.
A series of round shields hung on the outer hull. Each of them appeared solid and strong as the day they had been set in place. The ship itself appeared water tight and undamaged by the passing of time. It was nestled on a rack of wood, held up above the floor of the chamber some ten feet. The prow had a large, wooden dragon head and the stern ended with a spiked tail. Only when the two of them came close did they notice that the sides of the hull were actually carved to give the appearance of wings.
“Whoever built this craft was very skilled,” Nedekar said.
“The question is how they got it in here,” Kelden commented. “I don’t see any exits, do you?”
Nedekar turned about in place, holding his cube high above his head and focusing the light as best he could. “No, and I have inspected every hill and vale on this island. I would have found a tunnel if there was one. So, there must be another door, like the two we have already discovered.”
“So a third cube then?” Kelden asked. “After all, my cube only opened the first door. Yours opened the second.”
It was Nedekar’s turn to shrug. He frowned and pouted out his lip as his shoulders rose up to nearly touch his ears. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Now that my memory is coming back to me, I understand the rune I saw in the previous chamber regarding Nagé’s husband. My studies told me there were several cubes. They were fashioned by Tangui, and given to Nagé, but I can’t quite remember their purpose.”
Kelden stopped and turned to regard Nedekar. “The cubes were made by the gods?”
Nedekar smiled. “I believe Lisei wants us to return them to their rightful owners,” he said with an emphatic nod that seemed to mock Kelden’s doubts, but the warrior wasn’t about to come over to Nedekar’s side just yet.
“If that were true, then why take this cube away from Queen Dalynn?” he asked as he patted his cube. “She is the only surviving heir to the throne. Yet Lisei took the cube away from her.”
“Then there must be another heir,” Nedekar said matter-of-factly. The scholar then approached the wooden rack that propped up the longboat and slapped one of the timbers. “It looks sturdy enough to climb. Shall we go up and take a look?”
Kelden nodded and moved to the rack. He tugged on a couple of crossbeams before pulling himself up. The two climbed to the vessel and then helped each other over the side and into the longboat. Kelden looked around and grunted. “Perhaps we should reassess your opinion of the shipbuilders.”
“By thunder’s might,” Nedekar whispered. “This ship was meant to be burned.”
Kelden nodded. Bones were strewn about the bottom of the ship in a haphazard manner, nothing like the once orderly arrangement had been when those who had erected the funeral pyre had assembled everything. The once fine linens and silks that had adorned each corpse were now tattered rags discarded along the boat and left to rot.
“Who would have desecrated the bodies?” Nedekar asked. “I saw no sign of struggle down below.”
“Me neither, but we haven’t searched the whole chamber yet. Perhaps the others were caught by surprise and carried off. Or perhaps they were chased off by some sort of animal.”
Nedekar shook his head. “There aren’t any vultures out here, and no sea-croc could climb up to get at the corpses. Something else must have happened.”
Kelden sifted through the bones, walking carefully to avoid stepping on any directly. From the looks of the large femurs and the normal-sized skulls, there was little doubt that the ship-builders had been human. Elves would have had slighter bones, narrower skulls, and longer arms and fingers. Dwarves would have been much shorter. The odd thing, was that Kelden knew the sea-faring races in these parts, and none of the items matched his expectations. Kuscans were larger than most human races, but none of these bones seemed to indicate a height of more than six feet, let alone reach the seven-foot average of Kuscan males. Kelden bent down and pulled up a clothing fragment to inspect the patterns. The colors didn’t match any society he knew of. The inhabitants of Jibbam were given to wearing very colorful apparel with loud, flashy patterns that often mimicked blossoms or leaves found upon their island. Yet the clothing he held in his hand was a muted forest green with zig-zagging gold stitching. Too fine for pirates, yet not ostentatious enough for people from Jibbam.
“They must have been here a very long time,” Nedekar said as he shifted some bones with his foot. “Look at this.” Nedekar bent down and picked up a brown leather book.
“What is it?” Kelden asked.
“It’s a star chart, a navigational guide, but its centuries old. I have only ever seen one like this before. It was in my order’s library, but none of us knew where it came from, or who had drawn it.”
“Then how do you know its age?” Kelden asked.
“Several indicators,” Nedekar said. He turned and showed Kelden the cover. “First, there is the seal. This chart bears a single rune, an ancient form of Taish.”
“Taish?” Kelden asked. “So it was made by the elves?”
Nedekar shook his head. “No, this was made by a man. You see, the elves were the first, and best sea voyagers in the world. They created the most accurate star-charts. Some of these were copied and sold. Humans, being the crafty devils that we are, began to copy their likenesses and sell counterfeit copies. The difference, is that an elf would always imprint two runes on the front cover. One that would be large and visible to the naked eye, and another smaller rune set inside that would need a magnifying glass to locate and verify. Not to mention that the runes themselves were always sharper, with crisper angles when made by elves. No human hand has ever been able to master the technique, therefore all forgeries have slightly rounded runes. Well, except for Miklas Kofenstahr, his skill surpassed that of many elves actually.”
“So this is a fake?” Kelden asked, trying to hurry the history lesson along.
Nedekar shook his head. “No. You see, after forgeries became common, sea-faring guilds began to spring up throughout the larger cities. They set forth a set of rules and accepted practices. On the spine of this star-chart you can see a guild seal imprinted with gold embossing. Below the guild seal, you can see the year. This particular chart dates back to the ancient era.”
Kelden’s eyes widened. “Then that book is thousands of years old.”
Nedekar nodded. “I am not a wizard, so I can’t say for certain, but given the fact that this chart is wholly intact, as is true of the other copy I spoke of in my order’s possession, I suspect they were created with the use of magic that prevents them from dulling or rotting. Look.” Nedekar opened the cover and flipped through the first few pages. “Any other book from that era would either be dust already, or crumble as soon as it was touched. Yet, this one we can use as easily and surely as if it was made last week.”
“Does it have the location of this island?” Kelden asked.
Nedekar shrugged. “Only one way to find out. Here, take this and hold it over the pages.” Kelden took Nedekar’s cube and the two moved to sit on a bench while Nedekar studied each page. “This may take a little while. It has been a few years since I have worked with these kind of charts. But, if I just…” Nedekar started mumbling to himself while pointing at stars and tracing lines on several pages. He continued flipping through the book for quite some time before landing on a specific page and smiling. “I think I have it,” Nedekar said. He pointed to the book.
“That’s where we are?” Kelden asked.
Nedekar nodded slowly. “I think so. It’s hard to say for certain, of course, but I think this is the island upon which we sit. The left page is a star chart, mapping a journey from the main continent in the west, out past Jibbam, and to an island far in the east. The right page describes a bit about the mountains, and if I am reading the old runes correctly, the descriptions match where we are. There is a small map here, as well, that shows an island in relation to what I think is Jibbam, though that particular land mass is called Hibborm in this map.”
“So, we can follow the map back to Jibbam, then?”
Nedekar nodded. “Yes, I think we can, as long as the skies are clear at night, that is.” Nedekar flipped the pages over. “Let’s just see what else is…” The scholar stopped and his mouth fell open. “It can’t be,” he said breathlessly.
“What is it?” Kelden asked.
Nedekar pointed to the pages. Kelden looked down and saw the left page was not a star-chart. Instead, it was a drawing of a cube much like the two they currently had in their possession. Two runes sat above the drawing, and a short passage covered the opposite page.
“This talks about a cube, fashioned by Tangui, and given to the people of the sky. It says that the cube must be returned to the people in the sky, and then gives directions to find a mysterious island in the east, near the edge of the seas.”
“The edge of the seas?” Kelden said with an arched brow. “No, I don’t care what it says, we are going west. I am getting back to Queen Dalynn.”
“But, this is a sign. We have to complete the quest, don’t you see? You, me, the cubes, we have work to do!”
Kelden shook his head and shouted. “I am not a pawn for the demi-gods to play with at their will! I am an agent of the queen, and I have a duty to perform. If you want to help me, then help me sail west. Otherwise, stay out of my way. I’m leaving this island.”
“But there is a third cube!”
“How do you know it isn’t talking about the cube you are holding?” Kelden said sharply. “It could be any cube.”
Nedekar shook his head. “No, there is a cube somewhere in this cavern. These people were on a noble quest to return it to its rightful owners. Don’t you see? Now we have to finish what they started.”
“Let Lisei find the sky people herself, that is what she rules, is it not?” Kelden asked. “She is the demi-god of storms and sky, yes?”
“We must find the cube,” Nedekar said suddenly, ignoring Kelden’s comment. Nedekar snatched the glowing cube from Kelden, and jumped down from the ship without even grunting when he hit the ground below.
“Nedekar, wait!” Kelden rose up and climbed out of the longboat, which proved a bit more difficult without a good source of light. “At least shine your cube my way!” Kelden called out. No response. Nedekar was running around the chamber, searching for clues. Kelden stretched his arm a bit too far and the wound in his chest tore at the corner. The warrior groaned and sucked in a breath through his teeth as he pulled his arm back and opted to jump down the remaining few feet. How he had managed to fight the sea-croc was anyone’s guess at this point. Perhaps it had been the urgency of the situation, or perhaps the cool waters had caused a mild numbing effect. Either way, he barely wanted to move his arms now. He walked slowly, turning and adjusting course to follow Nedekar as the strange little man darted sporadically from one place to another.
The chamber was much larger than Kelden had anticipated, sprawling out like an octopus with several offshoots that wound their way to dead-ends, some filled with more bones, others just bare and empty. Then, as they search the seventh off-shoot, Nedekar let out a whoop.
“I found a box!” he shouted.
Kelden, intrigued by the discovery, gave in to his curiosity and jogged to meet up with the scholar. Nedekar opened a bronze chest and shined his light inside. His wide smile faded and then curled downward into a frown as the squeaking lid moved back to reveal nothing but the decayed remnants of a black velvet cloth.
“No, it has to be here,” Nedekar said.
“Maybe the ones who made the funeral pyre took it with them,” Kelden put in. “Or, maybe someone else found it before we came here. After all, if the boat has been here for as long as the star-chart, surely someone could have found this place.”
“But who would ever be unfortunate enough to come to this gods-forsaken island?” Nedekar said before tapping a finger to his lips.
Kelden cracked a smile and gave a short snort. “You mean besides us?” he asked.
“What? Oh, yes, quite right,” Nedekar said with a nod. “But surely the Mistress of the Sky would not have sent us here if the cube had already been found. Everything points to a grand design, I’m sure of it.”
Kelden was about to say something, but the ground shook and he staggered backward into the wall of the cavern, barely catching himself before falling. Nedekar was not so lucky, and fell to all fours, dropping his cube. The magic artifact bounced and tumbled away from them.
Something groaned in the darkness beyond the reach of the cube’s magical light.
“It’s mine,” a voice growled. “Not yours. No. Can’t have it.”
“We aren’t alone,” Nedekar said.
“So it would seem,” Kelden replied.
Something shifted in the shadows. Heavy feet shuffled along the ground toward them. A low, throaty growl hung on the air, but it sounded like no creature Kelden knew of. There was a terrible crack of stone that echoed down the cavern, and the shuffling feet stopped for a time.
“What was that?” Nedekar asked.
A moment later, something hairy moved into the soft purple glow of the cube.
“The light must be put out!” Kelden took a half step back when he saw the beast emerge from the shadows. Hair lined the tops of its gargantuan feet, and dusted its shins. A grotesque, round belly stuck out over a crude loin cloth and hung down the top third of the creature’s muscular thighs. Long, thin arms held a boulder overhead as the thing roared once more.
“The light must be put out!” Kelden repeated with urgency.
“No!” Nedekar shouted as the beast took aim for the magical cube. “Stop!”
The beast stopped and stared at Nedekar, still holding the boulder in the air as he cocked his head at the scholar. “You have come for it! She sent you, didn’t she? You can’t have it! The darkness wants it. Only the darkness can have it!”
The beast then threw its head back and roared mightily. The sound echoed off the walls several times, and then a chill ran down Kelden’s spine as other voices answered the call with a howl of their own.
“Look at his neck!” Nedekar shouted.
Kelden looked up and cursed under his breath. There, hanging on a gold chain was a third cube. It had been hidden behind the creature’s beard, but was now plainly visible as the beast had its head tilted back.
“I told you!” Nedekar hissed.
The wound in Kelden’s chest was aching terribly, not to mention the various cuts and punctures the sea-croc had given him only a short while before. He was in no shape to fight, and even if he had been, he didn’t have the sword. He looked over to the scholar and sighed helplessly. Nedekar didn’t have it either.
They were weaponless, exhausted, and trapped. The stone wall behind them offered no space to retreat or hide, and the monstrous brute was easily within range to crush them with the boulder. Even if the first creature missed, the howling cries from other parts of the cavern were growing in intensity now, and they were coming closer. Kelden and Nedekar needed a way out, and they needed it now.